Getting U.S. regions past sleepwalking

By: - July 1, 2007 12:00 am

BOSTON – Far too many of America’s metro regions have been sleepwalking into the 21st century, only mistily aware of how severely global economic competition and climate change may hit them. Or if aware, so splintered politically they’re dangerously slow to respond.

Boston is trying avoid that trap. At a Boston College Citizen Seminar last week, a cross-section of hundreds of city and regional leaders heard a dramatic presentation of where the metropolitan area leads – and lags. Each challenge, from energy dependence to excessively expensive health care, was underscored by compelling data and matched with response strategies.

The official occasion was release of the most recent Boston Indicators report, a project kicked off by the Boston Foundation a decade ago and now cosponsored by the city itself and the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

In most cities, an indicators index release would draw a meager crowd. But Mayor Thomas Menino was just one of the headliners present; so were luminaries from Boston’s education establishment including MIT President Susan Hockfield and an array of corporate, non-profit and citizen action groups.

Why all this attention? Principally it’s because the Boston Indicators, spearheaded by the Boston Foundation’s Charlotte Kahn, have become the gold standard for U.S. regions. They’re not just boatloads of raw data; rather they’re framed, topic by topic, with readable, updated analysis and available online at ( Any leader or citizen get a clear, quick view of just where the region is progressing, where it’s stalled, and reference to possible or actual curative measures.

The Boston Foundation is using the indicators to rouse public concern and attention to unmet, pressing agendas. The new report candidly covers, for example, the area’s extraordinarily high cost of living, inflation in the housing market that it pricing out median-income families in town after town, and perils of severe labor shortages as young workers leave and the population ages.

But the indicators also celebrate the Boston region’s history of innovation and institutions and scientists ready to push it forward. The region “is beautifully poised,” MIT’s Hockfield said, to lead in “green, new” technologies. Citing today’s “terrifying” increase in global energy demand, she stressed MIT’s commitment to such technology breakthroughs as new energy storage devices to correct the intermittent, often unpredictable ups and downs of energy generated by wind turbines and solar. Simultaneously, she said, MIT scientists are working to develop nuclear power with increased efficiency and safety, and coal recovery with permanent carbon storage — “a portfolio of energy solutions, no single silver bullet.”

Boston, Kahn noted, said “has a history as a city of revolution,” including the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and 20th Century Information Age. “And today we’re at a critical inflection point in human history where we can transition to a sustainable future, or we can crash, in ways that would hurt billions of people.” The report’s message, she noted, is “that this small region with its extraordinary innovative capacity and still untapped potential can make a real difference in determining which road we go down.”

That’s going to require, however, fundamental changes. Health is one example: the Indicators show spending on health care in Massachusetts soared 44 percent from 2001 to 2006, even in the face of stagnant population levels. State health outlays are crowding such other priorities as local and higher education, human services and needed public transportation projects. Yet obesity and hypertension, risk factors for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, continued to rise.

“There’s something wrong with this picture,” notes Kahn: “We aren’t aligning health spending with the actual determinants of health – 50 percent of which are all about lifestyles and another 20 percent the environment, including exposure to toxins – and only 10 percent access to doctors, clinics and hospitals.”

One can imagine the massive resistance of Massachusetts’ mega-industry of famed hospitals, clinics and medical research institutions to the idea health dollars are being misdirected. But when respected organizations like the Boston Foundation and its partners make the case for sweeping reform, radical change becomes more thinkable.

And listening is going on. In 2004, the city and regional leadership seemed so splintered, institutions hunkered down in their own silos, that my Citistates Group colleagues and I wrote of Boston as “lacking a collaborative gene.” But now there’s progress, symbolized by a new LeWare Leadership Forum, cosponsored by the Boston Foundation and Federal Reserve Bank of New England, to brief leaders on key problems and spark collaborative action.

And while the Indicators started as a Boston-centric operation, now, with immense added data, they embrace the metropolitan ring that extends far beyond the city limits. They also make reference to Boston’s role as the capital of Massachusetts and leading city of New England, and cite its role as the northernmost anchor of the 50-million person Northeast Corridor reaching southward to Washington.

“Regions,” the authors appropriately note, “are the ideal geographical unit to respond to intensifying global forces.” 

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